GAZ-24 Volga Mk II

You're walking home from a day in the office. You haven't done much; hammered out a few pages on the typewriter, enveloped a few letters and stuck them in an out-tray, sipped ersatz coffee from a glass mug with Olga the receptionist. And now your hands are deep in your pockets and your shoulders braced against the wind.

Chin pressed against your breastbone, you round a corner, and that's when it happens. An arm grips your elbow, something hard and angular presses into the small of your back, a hand comes down on your head and you're half-pushed, half-shoved through the door of a long black sedan. If you haven't been koshed around the back of the head or been wrapped up in a sack yet, chances are your current view will be the interior of a GAZ-24 Volga from the back seat, with two suited gentlemen pressing you in from either side.

If it weren't for the inopportune circumstances that led to you being in such a position, you might find you actually enjoy being on a Volga's back seat. The rear bench was roomy enough to accomodate two muscular thugs and a malnourished dissident, and the 2.5litre engine would have had enough muscle-power of its own to get you whisked off to an interrogation chamber quick sharp.

Of course, the insinuation that the Volga (or Boat, as the Russians called it) was a vehicle only for the KGB isn't wholly fair; the authorities had almost exclusive use of far larger vehicles like the GAZ Chaika and the monstrous ZiL limousines, but for back-street kidnappings, their ostentatiousness would have been their failing; for a quick snatch-and-grab job you want a mid-sized saloon with straight lines and no defining features, something that can be parked in the gloom without attracting any unwanted attention. With that in mind, the Volga excelled itself; it was almost made for the job.

The very existence of the GAZ-24 can seem confusing to some; if the autocrats had their massive limousines, and the proles were being served with the newly-made Moskvitches and Ladas, what need could there be for a mid-sized sedan? Who would need it? Who could afford it? Where was the rationality of making such a car? It seems head-scratching when you think about it in basic supply-and-demand terms, but that just shows that you don't think like Homo sovieticus. The Volga name was etched indelibly into the Russian minds as representing wealth and success; a luxurious dream that only a chosen few could hope to attain in their lifetime. Few did, which only helped to maintain the revered status of these saloons. That's not to say they didn't deserve such veneration; in one of Russia's rare attempts to do a proper job of something, the M24 was a decade in the making. Looking at one now, you could almost believe they succeeded.

The Russian concept of the luxurious Volga started with the GAZ-21, a replacement to the post-war Pobieda, and yet work on a replacement was already being sketched out two years later in a bid to keep pace with the American design factories. And in keeping with the rapidly changing technologies and tastes, GAZ experimented with aerostyle fins (as seen on the Ford Fairlane), various engines including straight- and V-6s, and even pillarless body styles. This flirting with western decadence had a deeper relationship underneath; Mother Russia had a real desire to get its products onto the Western market, and had to find a viable solution to meet those demands, even if every whim and fancy of America meant sending the Volga prototype back to the drawing board; out went the hydraulic transmissions and unwieldy engines, and the acres of chrome and garish body lines; every angle was sobered up, every accessory toned down. It wasn't until the late Sixties that the Russians felt they had got to grips with what the West wanted, and suitably sober and practical GAZ-24 "Volga" finally entered production.

Its presence on the streets may be head-turning, but unless an orange TAXI light glowed from the roof, a wise pedestrian would keep his gaze averted from whatever civil servant or government official was driving, or being driven behind the leaping gazelle on the bonnet. Which is a shame, as for its time the GAZ-24 was a remarkably modern vehicle, matching practical and sturdy mechanicals with a contemporary tasteful body line. It even, astoundingly, had a high build quality that allowed taxi drivers to rack up 300,000 miles in the things, although, considering their worth, they were lovingly maintained during their operating lifetimes. It even lent its underpinnings to the RAF Latvija 2203 van with varying amounts of success, with the drivetrain surviving unchanged well into the Nineties.

The GAZ-24 is an institution in Russia; even now it embodies that dream of unobtainable living to a Western standard, and the very few examples left over are still treated with pride and respect To find one parked up in Warsaw as an advert to a restaurant is, in that respect, either a typically Polish snub to all symbols of the old Union, or, perhaps, the slightest nod of recognition that not every gift from the Soviets was a bad one.